Now that we're officially out of the country, we're going to spill the beans about some of the more interesting aspects of living in Myanmar for 1.5 years. If you've ever wondered how banking and money transfers work in a place that is restricted from doing croxx-border financial transations, here's an inside look into the informal money systems that have developed in Myanmar.
Although this is likely to relax very soon, Myanmar at the moment is severely restricted by financial sactions. So restricted, in fact, that there are no international banks here and there is no electronic connection between the local Myanmar banks and any banks outside of the country. This basically means that if you want to get money in/out of the country it has to be done by physically carrying money across borders.
Let's think about that for a bit. Let's say that you are like a lot of Myanmar people and you decide to work abroad in Thailand or Malaysia to make money for your family. And let's assume that you are fairly frugal, have a good job and are able to save $100 a month which you would like to send back to your family in Myanmar. It's not like you can go to the local Western Union and send money back to your family because, well, Western Union and the like are barred from doing business in Myanmar. What Myanmar has is a system called" Hondi".
Hondi is basically the mom-and-pop, corner-shop version Western Union. Let's pretend that you want to send money from where you are working in Malaysia to Yangon, Myanmar. So, you go to your local Hondi person and give them your money; let's say you give them $100. That hondi person then calls a hondi person in Myanmar and says, "Hey, this guy just gave me $100 and it needs to go to his family." The hondi in Yangon will then meet your family and give then $100, minus a small commission.
Don't think the hondi network is limited to SE Asia, either. I've heard of the hondi network extending all the way to the States and Europe. We once joked that we should send money back to the US and have one of our parents pick it up from some shady guy sitting on a street corner. It would make a good story, but something tells me that our parents would probably never look at us in the same way, again.
Granted, this is all still technically illegal, but seeing as the other options are much more difficult (e.g. porting the money over borders), the hondi system still thrives. And don't think it's for small operations, either. I've heard of hondis delivering duffle bags full of Myanmar kyat to people's apartments in the middle of the day.
Speaking of duffel bags full of kyat, let's talk about how a lot of the money is exchanged in Myanmar. Not too long ago, there were two exchange rates: the official government rate at about 1 dollar to 8 kyats and the black market rate of 1 dollar to 820 kyats. Not surprisingly, most people exchanged their dollars on the black market. While there are official money changing places now, they are still a bit restrictive and a lot of people don't feel comfortable going to them, especially if they are running a non-government-sanctioned organization.
As a tourist, there's the minor inconvenience of exchanging $1000 or so. But for an organization that has a significantly higher budget, it becomes a whole different ball game. Enter the portable money-changing crew.
These guys will come to your place of business with a huge sack of cash, do the exchange, and then leave as quickly as they came. This doesn't sound all that interesting, but there are a couple of things that awe me about it:
1) A lot of these guys take the public bus. Quite often we're talking about exchanging $10,000 or more. That means, in a country where a salary decent-paying job is around $50 / month, there are guys who regularly board the $0.20 bus with more money than most people can imagine. Just sitting there in a bag. If you haven't done the math yet, that means they are traveling around with the equivalent of more than 16.6 years of wages. To put it in perspective, if we assumed that a good wage in the states is, conservatively, $50,000 / year, that's like taking the city bus in Chicago with a bag of $833,000 in cash. And you don't just do it once, you do it every week.
2) These guys can count money like champs. I've seen some guys take stacks of bills in both hands and be able to flip through them at the same time, effectively allowing them to count twice as fast. A lot of these guys can count through 2 stacks of one hundred bills in about 15 seconds flat without making a mistake.
Ha. Ha. Ha. Banking account. That's funny.
Seriously, though, being foreigners, we're not allowed to open an account within the country, even with business visas. Of course it's not like we'd want to anyway, as the banks don't exactly have the most outstanding reputation. While it's gotten a lot more stable, before it wasn't uncommon for a bank to suddenly close down and take off with all of the savings that people had stored there.
So, you're probably wondering what he did with our money that we didn't spend. Well, we did what any respectful person would do and we put it in a plastic bag in our living room. When we needed money for the day, we would use our ATM card (aka "our hand") and make a withdrawl from the bank (aka "the bag"). Deposits worked in the opposite direction.
It made us uncomfortable at first to have stacks of cash just sitting around, especially when the largest Myanmar bill used to be the equivalent of $1. But it's funny how easily you get used to things. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it), we didn't make that much money, so our savings were fairly limited. But, yes, for a year our bank was an innocuous plastic bag sitting in our living room.
Last week we dropped by a mall that was just completed a month ago. Before walking in the main entrance, we were stopped in our tracks by something that caught us off guard: an ATM machine. With the cooled aircon air refreshing our faces in the tropical heat we unabashedly stared at the strange machines in the same way that someone from a lost Amazonian tribe might stare at an airplane flying overhead.
Bessie: "Let's see if money is actually going to come out."
Me: "Good idea"
Sure enough, after a couple of minutes, a woman walks up to the machine, puts her card in and out comes crisp kyat notes. At that point, I think I made some sort of eloquent statement like "That's fucked up." I couldn't believe what I was seeing.
Of course, even though they are weird for us to see them in Myanmar, in the long run these are good developments. It's easy for people from the outside to marvel at the "simplicity" of life in Myanmar with its lack of big banks and such. But in reality, the alternatives are way less appealing. As much fun as it is to keep stacks of money lying around or to know guys who are unfazed by carrying around duffel bags full of cash, I'll always prefer storing my money as 1's and 0's in a computerized banking system.
And I'm sure that not too long from now all of the things in this post will be a relic of the past. Progress keeps its slow march forward and the country is changing by the hour. Pretty soon, we'll all forget that there was a time when we couldn't readily get money from an ATM or transfer money overseas at the click of a button.